How Black Studies Avoids Studying Blacks

May 10, 2012

Multiple Pages
How Black Studies Avoids Studying Blacks

Another day, another person fired from a prestigious writing gig for perceived racism.

This time it’s Naomi Schaefer Riley, who was recently fired from her position at the Chronicle of Higher Education for calling the recent crop of dissertations coming out of Northwestern University’s African American Studies Ph.D. program “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.”

Riley’s comments came in response to a Chronicle piece on Northwestern’s program and the journey the academic discipline has made since its birth amid late-1960s campus protests.

Riley’s colleagues, OpEd contributors, commenters, websites, and, as of this writing, 6,157 petitioners have called for her ouster. One of Northwestern’s graduate students wrote that “one can only assume that in a bid to not be “out-n*******” by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on.”

“African American Studies has a leaden foot on the victimhood pedal, and its premise is rarely questioned.”

Criticisms similar to Riley’s aren’t new. Academics have long debated African American Studies’ legitimacy and rigor.

John McWhorter, a black academic critical of the discipline, wrote for the Manhattan Institute that the mission of most of these departments “is to teach students about the eternal power of racism past and present.” He added, “however, too often the curriculum of African American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.”

McWhorter has also argued that African American Studies explores the contributions of black intellectuals but largely ignores the contributions of black conservatives.

Naomi Riley pointed to a dissertation written by LaTaSha B. Levy who, the Chronicle said, “is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.” She criticizes black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and McWhorter for playing “one of the most significant roles in the assault on the civil rights legacy that benefited them.”

Writing in the Encyclopedia of African American Studies under the “Black Conservatism” entry, Levy accuses black conservatives of using anecdotes to “legitimize anti-black rhetoric and political stances.”

African American Studies has a leaden foot on the victimhood pedal, and its premise is rarely questioned.

A case in point is Zachary Brewster and Sarah Nell Rusche’s article in The Journal of Black Studies titled “Quantitative Evidence of the Continuing Significance of Race: Tableside Racism in Full-Service Restaurants.” Brewster and Rusche analyze the “culture of white servers” in which white waitstaff allegedly infringe on black patrons’ civil rights by profiling them and providing them with poor service. The authors surveyed waiters and waitresses—people who earn most of their income through tips—and found that many of them assume that black patrons tip worse and display worse behavior than other groups.

This research documents a legitimate concern, but it is incomplete and typical of Black Studies research. A more complete study would consider black patrons’ actual tipping behavior.

Research such as that from Cornell’s Michael Lynn has shown that black patrons do, on average, tip less than other groups—even when controlling for other factors such as income, education, and service quality. Lynn pointed out in a meta-analysis that black patrons tipped between three and six percentage points lower than other groups. And seven percent of black patrons were reported “stiffing” their servers compared to only one percent of white patrons.

A larger understanding of so-called “tableside racism” would discuss both sides of the table. This vicious cycle is not begun and ended by white racism.

In another article for The Journal of Black Studies, Jason Gainous wrote of “The New ‘New” Racism.” The abstract reads, “the author suggests that an even more subtle form of racism may exist. Racism may actually be expressed in opposition to big government.”

Is there any escape? The Founding Fathers’ small-government ideal is “an inherently subtle form of racism” according to this view.

When Black Studies programs explore the causes of economic and social disparities, they always begin with the conclusion that white racism is the root of the problem. It assumes that all-pervasive racism is tucked behind every political, social, or economic interaction in which blacks participate and that blacks are always the victims. The discipline seems to borrow the format of the popular game show Jeopardy! It begins at the end and works back toward the question. That’s not how academic inquiry should work. And Naomi Schaefer Riley’s ouster suggests that it probably won’t change.


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